Blood? It’s Not Funny! Humour in Science Writing
“This will not be a funny book. I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” (pp. 10)
In the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, author Mark Haddon investigates the death of Wellington the poodle, a complex tale of lies and emotion, distrust and heartache, through the lens of Christopher’s school assignment.
Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries in the world and every prime number up to 7,507. In the opening paragraph, he addresses the dead dog in Mrs Shears’ front lawn, stabbed in the side with a garden fork, and the hit to a policeman that put him in jail. After all, this is a murder mystery novel.
Or is it? Consider this excerpt of Christopher’s time in jail:
“At 1:28 a.m. a policeman opened the door of the cell and told me that there was someone to see me.
I stepped outside. Father was standing in the corridor. He held up his right hand and spread his fingers out in a fan. I held up my left hand and spread my fingers out in a fan and we made our fingers and thumbs touch each other. We do this because sometimes Father wants to give me a hug, but I do not like hugging people, so we do this instead, and it means that he loves me.
… [The policeman] was an inspector. I could tell because he wasn’t wearing a uniform. He also had a very hairy nose. It looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils.
He said, ‘I have spoken to your father and he says that you didn’t mean to hit the policeman.’
I didn’t say anything because this wasn’t a question.
He said, ‘Did you mean to hit the policeman?’
I said, ‘Yes.’
He squeezed his face and said, ‘But you didn’t mean to hurt the policeman?’
I thought about this and said, ‘No. I didn’t mean to hurt the policeman. I just wanted him to stop touching me.’” (pp. 21-22)
This passage surely wasn’t solely intended to make the reader laugh—what is Haddon’s intention?
Well, we learn that Christopher’s reaction to the policeman’s forcefulness was due to symptoms of autism; he does not like to be touched by other people, even his own father.
Is humour used effectively to convey information about Christopher’s autism here? Imagine if the passage had been written in a dramatic murder-mystery fashion:
“In the dead of night, the inspector approached the cell alongside the detainee’s furious father. The door creaked opened, and father approached son with an emotionless, alien-like greeting. The inspector didn’t know what to expect from the young criminal. He showed no remorse and continued to resist authority—not responding to interrogation—yet carried himself in a placid, uncomfortable manner. What was he capable of?”
My James Patterson imitation is not nearly as affective.
Haddon has a knack for relaying information about psychology, mathematics, astronomy and more in a humorous way. In fact, on page 11 the reader comprehends Olber’s paradox without even knowing it! It is the subtleties of Haddon’s humour that make it so fun to learn.
Haddon, M. (2004). The curious incident of the dog in the night-time. Sydney: Random House Australia (Pty) Ltd.